Harry Day

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Harry Melville Arbuthnot Day
Group Captain Harry Day GC OBE DSO – a post war photo.
Nickname(s) Wings
Born 3 August 1898
Died 11 March 1977 (aged 78)
Allegiance United Kingdom British Empire
Service/branch Royal Marine Light Infantry
United Kingdom Fleet Air Arm
 Royal Air Force
Years of service 1916–1950
Rank Group captain
Unit Royal Marine Light Infantry
No. 23 Squadron RAF
No. 57 Squadron RAF
Commands held No. 23 Squadron RAF
No. 57 Squadron RAF
Battles/wars World War I
World War II
Awards George Cross
Albert Medal
Distinguished Service Order
Officer of the Order of the British Empire
Legion of Merit (Degree of Officer) (US)
Relations George Fiott Day
George Miller Bligh

Group Captain Harry Melville Arbuthnot Day GC, DSO, OBE (3 August 1898 – 11 March 1977) was a Royal Marine and later an RAF pilot during the Second World War. As a prisoner of war, he was senior British officer in a number of different camps and a noted escapee.

Early life

Day was born in Sarawak on Borneo and grew up there. His grandfather had been a major in the 66th Foot before forming a private army for Charles Brooke the second White Rajahs of Sarawak, which became known as the Sarawak Rangers. Day's father had joined the Rajah's service and became a Sarawak resident.[1]

Day's great-uncle was George Fiott Day, who had won the Victoria Cross during the Crimean War. He is also a descendant of George Miller Bligh, who was an officer on HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar.[1]

Day was sent to England and was educated at Haileybury College, where he joined the Officers Cadet Corps. Whilst on manoeuvres, he was wounded when shot in the back with a blank cartridge.

He joined the Royal Marines in 1916 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

World War I

Day served with a Royal Marine detachment on the battleship HMS Britannia.

On 9 November 1918, two days before the armistice, the ship was torpedoed and sunk. Day distinguished himself by twice returning below deck, through smoke and flames, to rescue two injured men trapped inside which included the wardroom steward. For this act of bravery, Day was awarded Albert Medal (sea, second class). The citation appeared in the London Gazette on 7 January 1919.[2]

In 1971, all Albert Medal holders became eligible to exchange their award for a George Cross, which Day did.[3]

Inter war years

Day was promoted to lieutenant in 1919[4] and his first command was with a marine detachment on HMS Isis, an Eclipse-class cruiser, before joining HMS Malaya.

Later he commanded the marine detachment of HMS Caledon at the burning of Smyrna, helping to evacuate Greek survivors of the Turkish massacres. He also saw service with the fleet during the League of Nations involvement at Memel.[5]

He stayed with the Royal Marines until 1924, when he moved to the Fleet Air Arm as a flying officer serving with the Royal Air Force during the late 1920s before receiving a permanent commission in 1930 as a flight lieutenant.[6][7]

He joined No. 23 Squadron RAF flying Gloster Gamecocks, with which he led the RAF Synchronised Aerobatics Display Team, which included Douglas Bader at the 1931 Hendon Air Show,[8] and other displays.[9]

He held posts at RAF Abu Sueir and Khartoum, was promoted to squadron leader in 1936,[10] holding commands at Aboukir, Netheravon before commanding the Advanced Flying Training School at RAF Little Rissington.[11]

When war was imminent, he was promised a staff job at RAF Bomber Command headquarters; however, he requested to join an operational squadron. This was approved, and in July 1939 he was promoted to wing commander[12] and placed in command of 57 Squadron stationed at RAF Upper Heyford.

World War II

Day was over 40 when World War II began, and with No. 57 Squadron he moved to Metz as part of the air component of the British Expeditionary Force, equipped with the Bristol Blenheim light bomber.[13] He volunteered to carry out the squadron's first operational mission, a flight from Metz to reconnoitre Hamm-Hannover-Soest on 13 October 1939. His Blenheim, L1138,[14] was shot down by a Me109 flown by Unteroffizier Stephan Lutjens, of 11./JG 53 near Birkenfeld. Day bailed out, suffering burns to his face and hands, but otherwise landed safely by parachute. He was immediately captured by the Germans and placed in the custody of Luftwaffe doctor Hermann Gauch.[15] His two crew-mates, Sergeant E.B. Hillier and AC1 F.G. Moller were both killed.[16][17]

Prisoner of war

Upon his capture, Day became a prisoner of war. He spent a few days at a German Army hospital having his burns treated before spending two weeks at a small camp at Oberursel (which later became known as Dulag Luft). He was then sent to Oflag IX-A/H at Spangenberg, arriving there at the end of October.[18] He took over the role of senior British officer at this camp and became responsible for the well-being of the handful of British RAF prisoners who had entered captivity so early in the war. Day, with six RAF and five French POWs, left Oflag IX-A/H in December 1939 to be sent to Dulag Luft near Oberursel to become a 'permanent' staff at this new transit camp.

Dulag Luft

Day, again due to his seniority in rank, held the post of senior British officer and also headed the permanent staff whose job was to help newly captured aircrew adapt to life as prisoners of war.

Until the Norwegian Campaign began in April 1940, very few prisoners entered the camp, and life was fairly relaxed. Day got on well with the German commandant, Major Rumpel. The permanent staff were also allowed out on parole walk and enjoyed ample Red Cross food and a good relationship with the German guards. This 'privileged friendliness' caused suspicion with newly captured RAF aircrew who passed through the camp, and many accusations of collaboration were made against Day and his other colleagues.[19]

In fact, Day had already been sending intelligence back home in coded letters, and together with other members of the permanent staff, including Roger Bushell, Jimmy Buckley and Johnnie Dodge, he had been active in construction of a tunnel, starting from under his bed, which was completed in the spring of 1941.[20]

Dulag Luft escape

In June 1941, Day and 17 others tunnelled out of the camp. This was the first mass escape of the war. Day travelled on foot alone, aiming to walk down the Moselle Valley and into France, but was recaptured five days later looking like a tramp.[21] All the escapers were recaptured and after spending a few days in jail at Frankfurt am Main, all were transferred to Stalag Luft I.[22] Major Rumpel congratulated Day on his attempt.[23]

Stalag Luft I

Day arrived at Stalag Luft I in July 1941 and immediately took over the role of senior British officer. Any suspicions felt about Day from his time at Dulag Luft were quickly dissolved when the other inmates of the camp learnt of his exploits.

At this camp, Day set up an escape organisation, headed by Jimmy Buckley, by which all escape attempts, intelligence gathering and escape preparations were controlled. This organisation became the model used at all other allied POW camps for the remainder of the war.[24][25]

Day partly oversaw a mass escape attempt in August 1941 when 12 officers tried to escape using a tunnel; however, the escape was discovered as the third person left the exit, and all three escapers were recaptured.[26] When this camp was closed in March 1942, Day and all RAF inmates were transferred to the east compound at the newly built Stalag Luft III at Sagan.

Stalag Luft III – east compound

Here he made a second escape attempt using a forged interpreter's pass. While in solitary confinement after that escape, he tried a third escape but was again recaptured.

Oflag XXI-B

In October 1942, he was sent to Oflag XXI-B at Schubin where in March 1943 he tunnelled out through the latrine tunnel with William Ash, Peter Stevens, Aidan Crawley and others. This time Day headed east to Poland, hoping to get on a ship to Sweden. He was recaptured and sent back to Schubin, before being transferred back to Sagan.

Stalag Luft III – north compound and the Great Escape

Together with Roger Bushell, he planned and organised the "Great Escape". On 24 March 1944, Day and 75 others took part in the Great Escape and he made his way to Stettin. Disguised as a British colonel under guard by another escapee (Pavel Tobolski), who was dressed as a German soldier, they travelled by train, through Berlin, reaching Stettin on the evening of the next day.

There they sought help from some French workers and were taken to a French workers camp. However, they were betrayed by an informer in the camp and arrested the following day.

After a brief stay in the local jail, Day was taken to Berlin and was interviewed by Arthur Nebe, the man who selected the 50 escapers to be murdered, which included Tobolski.[27] Day was spared execution. Day later said that Hitler had ordered his execution personally, but that Hermann Goering had asked him to relent because Day and his family were so well known to the public.

Sachsenhausen concentration camp

After interrogation by the Gestapo, he was sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, from where he and four others (including three survivors from the Great Escape) managed another tunnel escape. After another visit to Gestapo headquarters, he was held in solitary confinement in the death cells at Sachsenhausen.

Hostage in Tyrol

In February 1945, he was transferred to Dachau via Flossenburg. In April 1945, he was transferred to Tyrol together with other prominent prisoners. He made one final escape attempt in the final weeks of the war when the prisoners had limited freedom within the city limits while being held in Villa Bassa (now Niederdorf). On 28 April, Day stole a Volkswagen and drove to the Allied lines where he informed the Allied Forces of the hostage situation in Tyrol. However, the following day, one of the German prisoners, Colonel von Bonin, telephoned Captain Wichard von Alvensleben in nearby Bozen, asking him to send his Wehrmacht unit to Villa Bassa to protect the prisoners from the SS guards. The Wehrmacht troops freed the hostages on 30 April after forcing their guards to flee.

For his services while a prisoner, Day was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He was also awarded the United States Legion of Merit (Officer Class) for his services to American POWs.[28]

Later life

Day was promoted to group captain in 1946[29] before retiring from service in 1950.

He acted as technical advisor for the films Reach for the Sky[30] and The Great Escape.[31]

The book Wings Day by Sydney Smith (Squadron Leader Eric Sydney-Smith RAF) is an account of Day's exploits as a prisoner of war. Sydney-Smith was also a POW and was held with Day for several years. The book was first published by Willian Collins & Sons & Co Ltd 1968, re-released by Pan Books (London) in 1970. ISBN 0-330-02494-9.

Day also heavily features in the biography of Douglas Bader Reach for the Sky by Paul Brickhill and The Great Escape also by Brickhill.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life in November 1961 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews.

Married to Margo, Day lived mainly in the Isle of Wight or at 6 Trevor Square, London. He died in the Blue Sisters Hospital, Malta, on 11 March 1977, aged 78.[31]


  1. 1.0 1.1 'Wings Day' by Sydney Smith page 26
  2. The London Gazette: no. 31112. p. 363. 7 January 1919. Retrieved 363.
  3. http://www.gc-database.co.uk/exchanges.htm
  4. http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/31543/pages/11355
  5. Wings Day by Sydney Smith, page 27
  6. http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1930/untitled0%20-%200861.html
  7. The London Gazette: no. 33623. p. 4273. 7 January 1919. Retrieved 363.
  8. Reach for the Sky by Paul Brickhill, page 41
  9. http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1931/1931%20-%200915.html
  10. The London Gazette: no. 34311. p. 5081. 7 January 1919. Retrieved 363.
  11. Wire & Walls by Charles Rollings, page 246
  12. http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1939/1939-1-%20-%200033.html
  13. Wire & Walls by Charles Rollings, page 67
  14. Record for Blenheim L1138 on lostaircraft.com
  15. Sigfrid Gauch, Traces of my Father, Northwestwern University Press, pp. 81–2.
  16. Wings Day by Sydney Smith, page 19
  17. RAF Bomber Command Losses 1939–40, WR Chorley, page 18
  18. Wings Day by Sydney Smith, page 28
  19. Wings Day by Sydney Smith, page 65
  20. Wings Day by Sydney Smith, page 71
  21. Wings Day by Sydney Smith page 77
  22. WO208/3269 Official Camp History – Dulag Luft Chapter II Para 24
  23. 'Wings Day by Sydney Smith page 79
  24. AIR40/1489 – Letter of Recommendation by Herbert Massey dated 4/7/45
  25. Escape from Germany by Aidan Crawley, page 101
  26. WO208/3282 Official Camp History – SL1 – Chapter II para 24
  27. AIR 40/2645 Official Camp History – Stalag Luft III Part III Chapter II Para 24b, The National Archives
  28. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37639. p. 3445. 7 January 1919. Retrieved 363.
  29. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37479. p. 1076. 7 January 1919. Retrieved 363.
  30. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049665/fullcredits
  31. 31.0 31.1 Wires and Walls by Charles Rollings, page 246
  • Wings Day, by Sydney Smith, story of Wing Commander Harry "Wings" Day, Pan Books, 1968, ISBN 0-330-02494-9
  • One Step Further by Marion Hebblethwaite - see www.gc-database.co.uk

External links